I had intended this piece to be about how brilliant Elizabeth Bowen’s notes on dialogue are, from her essay “Notes on Writing a Novel,” which you can read by signing up for free at http://www.narrativemagazine.com/issues/fall-2006/notes-writing-novel. The whole “Notes” is brilliant, but more than I can deal with here.
I have used these notes to teach dialogue for decades, but I suddenly had the unpleasant feeling that maybe I had violated the Writing Teacher’s Hippocratic oath: First, do no harm.
Had I been harming writers for years by giving them impossible notions a la Bowen of what dialogue must do and be?
I’ll give you a few of her key points:
“Dialogue requires more art than does any other constituent of the novel…Art in the trickery, self-justifying distortion sense. Why? Because dialogue must appear realistic without being so. Actual realism—the lifting, as it were, of passages from a stenographer’s take-down of a ‘real life’ conversation—would be disruptive. Or what? Of the illusion of the novel. In ‘real life’ everything in diluted; in the novel, everything is condensed.”
So far so good.
“What are the realistic qualities to be imitated (or faked) in novel dialogue?—Spontaneity. Artless or hit-or-miss arrival at words used. Ambiguity (speaker not sure, himself, what he means). Effect of choking (as in engine): more to be said than can come through. Irrelevance. Allusiveness. Erraticness: unpredictable course. Repercussion.”